The greatest salt lake: Uyuni

Sorry, Utah, but Uyuni has you beat. The world’s biggest and highest salt lake is the Salar de Uyuni in southwest Bolivia. We went there, and it was a wonder to behold.

We came to the city of Uyuni by train. The train ride was wonderful, very roomy and comfortable with friendly conductors and waiters. The only problem is that their movie selection was a bit on the violent and sex-saturated side. (Everything was R-rated on the entire trip, despite lots of kids being on the train)

Anyway, Uyuni was a nice little town. Our schedule was tight so we had to locate a hotel quickly upon arrival, sleep, and then get up early to book a 1-day excursion onto the Salar. We managed to find a nice tour agency (there’s 46 in the town) called Cristal Tours.

Anyway, we piled into a Toyota 4×4 with three Bolivians, an Argentine, and a French woman. First we trekked to two small lagoons. One was salt water, stained red. Right next to it was a blue-green freshwater lagoon with birds flying and plants growing. What a contrast!

The landscape was stark. No trees to be seen anywhere. From the lagoons we went to Colchani, which is a salt processing town near the Salar. There is a large mechnical processing facility which operates sporadically. But in the town most folks help with manual processing. We got to see the process in action. Salt is gathered in piles from the Salar and brought to the town. The salt is placed over a series of small ovens that take out the moisture. Then a machine grinds the salt into fine crystals which are mixed with iodine. The salt is then bagged individually and sealed for selling in markets around Bolivia. In the town there were folks selling all sorts of trinkets made of salt.

From there we drove out onto the Salar itself. It had rained the day before, so most of the Salar was covered with water. When it’s like that, the Salar becomes like a giant mirror, reflecting mountains on the horizon and the sky above. The Salar itself is about 7 meters deep, and most of that is salt.

We moved on to a place where we saw “Ojos de Sal” or “Eyes of Salt.” An underground river causes water to bubble up to the surface, like a spring. But the water is quite cold. Around these Ojos new salt crystals form. People who have rheumatism often come here for a week to bathe themselves in the saltwater, and leave feeling much better. I heard something similar when I visited the Dead Sea in Israel.

Our next stop was a hotel made entirely of blocks salt. It was interesting to look at. Even better was that here, there was no water covering the surface, so we could see the bright white salt itself. The salt surface develops cracks in hexagonal patterns. New salt from underneath oozes to the surface, creating a raised ridge. So from above it looks something like a honeycomb. And man is it bright. It’s a good thing we got sunglasses, because you could quickly become blind as you drive across the white landscape.

After taking photos and looking around, it was time for the long drive to the Isla del Pescado, which is in the center of the Salar. Along the way we saw the extinct volcano Tunupa not far away. When we had been looking at tours in the morning, one agent offered a tour which would have taken us to the volcano. As it turned out later, it’s a good thing we declined.

The Isla del Pescado (Fish Island) was amazing. It is shaped like a fish half out of the water, hence the name. The island itself is covered in jagged coral reef-like rock. It is also home to a special variety of cactus that covers the island. It was a strange site to see all these cacti amid the vast, bleak, empty wilderness surrounding us. We decided to take a climb to the top of the island (it’s essentially a mountain in the Salar) and the views we got along the way were amazing. I also scratched up one of my new shoes. Oh well, it was worth it. We had read in our travel book that these cacti flower around this time of year, and sure enough we saw one with a beautiful white flower.

We climbed back down to have lunch, and boy was I surprised to see it was going to be a full-blown traditional Bolivian lunch with a t-bone-like steak, bowtie pasta, veggies, and bananas. We sat on seats of stone at a table made of salt. Wild.

Time was getting short so we hopped back into the 4×4 and headed back to Uyuni. Yoli and I had a 7 p.m. bus to catch to Potosi. Unfortunately, because of the water on the Salar, our driver had had to drive much slower than normally he would have. As we neared Uyuni it appeared we might not have enough gas to make it. We stopped at a station to refuel, only to learn the station had no attendant. “Que hacemos?” our driver asked. (“What will we do?”)

Well, we just drove on. And we did make it, but we cut it really close. We grabbed our backpacks from the travel office and hustled across several blocks to find our bus. Two guys were finishing putting the luggage on top of the bus. Yoli ran inside to make sure it was our bus. As it turned out, our bus had already left, but they gave us seats on this bus. While she was inside I was yelling at the guys on top of the bus trying to get them to take my unwieldy backpack. They refused and told me to take it inside with us. I was not happy.

We ended up on the bus and the backpack would not fit under our seats or in the overhead compartment. So it had to sit upright next to Yoli’s legs. That wasn’t the worst part. The bus was filled with young Argentines who were determined to stay awake all night being loud, shining lights at each other. Thankfully I didn’t understand all the cursing they did each time we encountered problems along the ride. And like most buses in Bolivia, this one was packed like a can of sardines. There were many people standing (and eventually sitting) in the aisles. The bus roared to life and we headed to Potosi along an unpaved and violently bumpy road. The bus had several problems along the way which required us to stop while the driver attended to them. As night came on, my neighbors in the aisle decided to use my leg as a pillow. Yoli and I were cramped on every side.

The ride did eventually come to an end, an hour and a half late. It was 2:30 a.m. and it was time to find a hotel. Our first visit was unsuccessful (they were full). We decided to head toward a second choice from the book, but we walked in the totally opposite direction by mistake and ended up at a different hotel. Well, they had rooms, but they were pricey. But we didn’t care, we just wanted to get some sleep.

The adventure continues.

About Josh Renaud

Josh Renaud is married to Yoli and together they have four beautiful niƱitos. Find him on Twitter (@Kirkman) or Google+.
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One Response to The greatest salt lake: Uyuni

  1. Mom says:

    It’s so exciting to read about your adventures-it feels like Christmas every time I “open” the gift of your stories.Thanks for being so diligent to keep us updated.Much love to Yoli-I’m sure she is filled with a very special joy in being back in her homeland. I’m so proud of you both-love always,mom.